Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Realistic Kremlinology of Trump Tweets

During the Cold War, figuring out Soviet motives was one of the most important projects for politicians and pundits, the the Soviet government was profoundly opaque and mysterious, so there arose a new field of study known as Kremlinology, which sought to understand the machinations taking place in the Kremlin but the subtle signals that were visible to the public, such as seating arrangements.  How useful these speculations were is the subject of much debate.  The term is sometimes applied to any attempt to understand a secretive organization or process.  Some people have applied a sort of Kremlinology to Trump tweets.

Kevin Drum has a fine self-mocking example here trying to understand the subtle distinctions between "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @ NBCNews and many more)  is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.  SICK!" and "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @ NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"  He follows it with a rather humorous attempt to figure out what subtle shades of meaning Trump is seeking to convey with these fine distinctions.  Likewise, when Trump tweeted, "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" a huge wave of speculation ensued.  Was he trying to bait his enemies into burning flags to provoke outrage against them?  Was he trying to distract from whatever real story was brewing at the time?  Or, as Saturday Night Live put it, does Trump tweet to distract people from unwelcome stories or does he do it "because my brain is bad."

Thus far all evidence points to the "brain is bad" theory.  The trouble with the distraction theory is that there is always real news going on out there, rarely favorable to Trump, and he is always tweeting something nutty.  If there is any particular correlation between these things, I have yet to see the evidence of it.  As for subtle maneuvering, we are talking about a man who is not quite so subtle as your average steam calliope, so I think we can rule that out.

Nonetheless, there does turn out to be a useful Kremlinology of Trump tweets.  They are rarely original thoughts or based on any inside information.  (Which is good, I guess.  At least it means he isn't making things up out of whole cloth or revealing anything classified).  Rather, most of these bizarre tweets are responses to something he saw on TV or read in the news.  The real Kremlinology, then is to search through the news sources to see which one formed the basis for the tweet.

For instance, the flag burning tweets appears to have been a reaction to a news story on Fox about a flag being burned. His claims that he only lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal immigrants voting appears to have come from Infowars.  When he posted a tweet denouncing Vanity Fair, it soon transpired that the magazine had run an unfavorable review of his restaurant.  When he tweeted about crime in Chicago and threatened to send in the feds, some of his opponents speculated on whether the Mayor of Chicago had criticized him, or what message he was trying to send to supporters.  However, the source quickly turned out to be a Fox News report -- Trump's own (inaccurate) statistics were borrowed directly from Fox.  And when he astonished many by quoting the highbrow blog Lawfare, it soon transpired that he was simply (mis)quoting a comment on it by Morning Joe.  Indeed, the timing of Trump's tweets is usually shortly after the show he is citing.*

This is important not just as a mental game, but because it tells us where That Man in the White House gets his news from.  And this is significant because he forms his world views from what he sees in the news.  And, as others have comments, who controls what Trump watches can control him.

But let's focus on what is important.  At least Donald Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

*Another significant bit of Kremlinology on Trump tweets: Close Trump watchers observe whether the tweet was from Trump's personal Android phone versus his staff's phone.  Unsurprisingly, the unhinged tweets invariably come from Trump himself, while the attempts to put hinges back on come from his staff.

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